October 30, 2013 9:54:38 AM
CASA GRANDE, Ariz. -- A stream of thick, blowing dust crossing an Arizona highway led to a chain-reaction crash that killed three people in an area where gusting winds often stir up towering clouds of dirt that can reduce visibility to zero.
At least 12 other people were injured Tuesday in the 19-vehicle pileup on Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson.
Crews brought in portable lights as they worked past sunset to pry apart the 10 commercial vehicles, seven passenger cars, one tanker and one recreational vehicle that were involved, Arizona Department of Public Safety officials said.
Television footage showed at least one car pinned between two 18-wheelers and others wedged under big rigs near Picacho Peak in south-central Arizona.
Henry Wallace told KPHO-TV he got out of his car just in time before the chain-reaction crashes began.
"One truck hit another truck. Cars start piling into each other, and they pushed that one truck right into me and off to the side of the road," Wallace said.
"I couldn't see anything because the (dust) was so thick, but I could just hear it, 'Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.'"
Medical helicopters airlifted several of the injured to hospitals in Tucson and Phoenix, and DPS officials said at least one person was in critical condition.
Gordon Lee Smith, 76, of Mead, Wash., was identified as one of the people who died. Smith's wife was injured, DPS officials said, but her condition wasn't disclosed.
The names and hometowns of the other two killed weren't immediately available.
DPS investigators were interviewing survivors to determine the chain of events.
"This could be three, four or even five crashes. That's where the interview comes in with the drivers and witnesses," DPS Officer Carrick Cook said.
"That area of I-10 is historically known for these blowing dust storms that come through," Cook added. "At the time of this crash, there were reports that there was zero visibility in the road, and with these dynamic systems that come through so quickly, people are often surprised by it."
The National Weather Service had issued a blowing dust advisory shortly before the crashes, with wind gusts of up to 30 mph reported in the area.
"A steady southwest wind created channels of dense, blowing dust," weather service meteorologist Chris Dunn told KPHO. "Unfortunately, one of those localized channels of dust ended up over a busy Arizona interstate."
DPS spokesman Bart Graves said Tuesday's crash was one of the worst chain-reaction accidents in that area in the past seven years.
Parts of westbound I-10 were closed for more than five hours.
The Arizona Department of Transportation recommends that motorists who find themselves in a dust storm pull completely off the paved portion of the road, turn off all lights including emergency flashers, set the emergency brake, keep feet off the brakes so others don't try to follow the tail lights, and stay in the vehicle with seat belts fastened.